Imagine a mountain, the type of thing that you might go skiing on in the winter. Now picture yourself running up and down said mountain for nine miles and just for kicks why don’t you throw in some really sadistic obstacles? Things like fire and mud and just to make it more fun why not throw in some live wires? Yeah, live wires. You know just string them over that mud pit there so that you’ll get zapped as you’re trying to get across to the other side. We’ll call it the electric eel. What’s that you say? You’d like a dumpster full of ice cubes to jump into as well? Done. Congratulations you’ve just entered the world of the Tough Mudder, an event so intense that in order to compete you must sign a waiver releasing the planners from liability should you happen to die somewhere along the course. SLIDESHOW: ONE TOUGH MUDDER
Let me be clear, this event is a sports photographer’s paradise. The mud alone would be enough to combat every extra inning baseball game you’ve ever shot (what’s that you say, 17 innings and not a single good picture?) but then throw in the ice cubes, the fire, the electrified wires, and a bunch of contestants so focused on getting through the thing that they have no idea you’re even there and well… you get the point.
You might assume that a photographer on her way to cover such an event would think to bring some sort of suitable covering for her equipment. I would love to tell you that I busted out the expensive rain covers for my cameras and wrapped them up lovingly, keeping a microfiber cleaning cloth in my pocket to quickly wipe away any debris that got on my lens. But that would be a lie. I carried three cameras with me and threw caution to the muddy, muddy wind.
The first obstacle is the one the Tough Mudder calls the “Arctic Enema” the competitors run straight up the mountain and then come back down to jump into dumpsters filled with ice cubes. Since there were no PR people to stop me from doing so (did I mention that there are no PR people telling you what not to do in photographic paradise?) I climbed up on the edge of the dumpster to shoot the competitors as they jumped in and swam towards me to get out. The reactions ranged from those who screamed to those who laughed and of course those who swore. It goes without saying that I got soaked, but I managed to keep one patch of my t-shirt dry so that I could wipe water off the lens every few minutes.
Since the race went off in three heats it was hard to decide where to go next. When I arrived to get my credentials in the morning I was given a trail map of the mountain marked with each obstacle and told that I could walk anywhere I wanted to on the course. It was obvious that there were some obstacles on the nine mile course that I was going to have to give up on seeing because they were just too far out of the way. I picked out the ones that sounded good and tried to make a rough plan of attack figuring on when the heats might end up at each obstacle.
With this in mind I hiked up to the “Electric Eel” next to get the first competitors as they jumped into the pool of mud making their way under strings of electrified wires. Getting down low and shooting with a 300mm lens I was able to focus on the splash of muddy beads of water that went up around the people as they tried to get through. Each competitor had a different strategy of getting past the live wires. Some would hesitantly pick their way through the wires while others opted to swim hard and fast to get out of there as quickly as possible. The fast people were the ones who I kept an eye out for to make the tight splash photos and the slow and meticulous ones were better for the wide reaction shots from the side again getting low and trying to get as close as possible without getting the camera wet.
The day went on like this, from one photogenic obstacle to the next I shot people in all sorts of precarious and awesome visual situations. As I hiked from one obstacle to another spectators would make comments about how tough it must be to “carry all of that camera gear”, while this is a remark I often hear at sporting events it seemed particularly insane in contrast to the people that they had come to watch. Running up the side of a mountain with wet shoes, pulling themselves by their arms and legs over ropes strung out over the water, and signing death waivers all seems far more impressive than schlepping around a few cameras.
All day I had been trying to illustrate in photographs the toughness that it takes to get through this course and the toll that it takes on the people who participate in it. For some reason the spectators made me realize how much I kind of wanted to partake in this event myself. Although the live wires are a bit of a turn off, there’s something about conquering a mountain that is rather appealing. It is possible that next year I’ll be diving into a vat of ice, but then again maybe that’s just the mud talking.